Over the past few weeks, I’ve read a great deal about Russia’s new belligerence. Most of the articles have expressed a level of shock and bewilderment that surprises me. In my book “Critical Mass,” which comes out this January, two great dangers will be explored: the primary geopolitical danger that faces the west today, which is nuclear terrorism, and the part Russia plays in that threat.
Two years ago, when I started the book, I knew quite certainly how Russian foreign policy would evolve, and what the state of relations between Russia and the west would be when the book was published. At the time, the western world was living in a fictional relationship with Russia. George W. Bush and his administration, from their cloud-cuckoo White House, were falling all over themselves to curry favor with the KGB, in the person of Vladimir Putin. In part, as a result of this illusory friendship, billions of investment dollars were being poured into the country–most of which either have been, or will be, lost, when corrupt state-backed companies steal these enterprises as they become successful, or, steal them de-facto, by demanding backroom bribes to allow them to continue in business.
At the same time that western news media and governments were crowing that there was a “new” Russia, I was watching the Russian realities, which were very different from the illusion. First, Russia’s new found energy wealth was being poured not into rebuilding its infrastructure and providing its citizens with some minimal services from their government, but into a massive rearmament program.
Every year, the Russian population declines by about 800,000 people. But if you go to St. Petersburg or Moscow, you see glittering western-style cities, clean and bright and full of expensive shops, automobiles and restaurants. In other words, they look now very much as the did prior to the Communist disaster, and the rest of the country looks very much as it did then, too.
The Russians have traded the ridiculous Soviet system for a return to the Czarist model, with a crucial difference: instead of the old nobility, the state is now in league with criminal gangs, to an extent that is unprecedented in history. As a result of this foolish entanglement, and its failure to provide for even the most basic needs of its citizens, the “new” Russia will end up a failed state just as both of the old ones did. But not today. Today, Russia is resurgent, and it is dangerous, and I wrote my thriller to shine a light on just how dangerous it is.
First, though, I would like to review, just briefly, the history that the west, ever the dancing fool, has forgotten, but that Russia lives and breathes.
Few westerners have ever heard of Alexander Nevsky, but there is not a single Russian schoolchild who does not learn about him, and that has been true for the 750 years since he drove out the Knights of Livonia, who were threatening Novgorod. This was not like the traditional raids that gave the Russian people the name “slavs,” or slaves. Such raids had been carried out by Teutons against the eastern tribes from time immemorial. This was different, because the Roman Catholic knights proposed to destroy the Russian church and compel obedience to the Roman pope.
The west came back to Russia in 1812, when Napoleon took the flower of French youth with him deep into Muscovy, and saw his hopes and his empire destroyed at the Battle of Borodino on September 7 of that year. The French occupied Moscow, but the Russians burned it, and the French were forced out during the depths of the Russian winter. Of the half million men Napoleon took with him, only about ten thousand returned home.
Again, the Russians saved themselves from western aggression, but at tremendous cost in property and lives.
And again, the west returned to the attack in World War One, when the Central Powers did battle with the Russian Empire, which then collapsed in the October Revolution of 1917. As a result of this collapse, Russia’s buffer states, which it had acquired to protect its homeland from western invasion, became indepedent, and Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and Finland were freed from Russian domination.
Then came World War II, and Adolf Hitler’s plan to replace fifty million slavs living west of the Urals with living space for a few million Germans. The problem was, he had the military capability to execute this mad plan, and the west attacked Russia yet again, this time in the bloodiest conflict the world has ever known.
To their credit and Josef Stalin’s incredulous surprise, the western allies of Britain and the United States gave Russia significant support in the conflict, and Russia, against all odds, was able–just barely–to drive off this latest invasion. And, into the bargain, to re-conquer all of the old Czarist buffer states except Finland, and to add the rest of the Balkans for good measure.
The Cold War followed, and for seventy years there was an uneasy truce between Russia and the west. During that time, there grew up in Russia the conviction that the western democracies were inherently unstable, and could become aggressive dictatorships at any moment. This view is still held by many in Russia.
After the gigantic Russian military failure in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union collapsed, and, once again, Russia lost her buffer states in the west. But this time was the worst ever, because she also lost all of the Caucasus and even, incredibly, the Ukraine, which became an independent state. Coupled with a devastated infrastructure and a declining population, Russia reached its lowest ebb of power in over a thousand years. And, with that, experienced its greatest sense of vulnerability.
Not only that, most of the freed nations–the ones that mattered–eagerly clamored for alliance, both economic and military, with the west. The west responded favorably, while Russia had to sit quietly by.
Four years ago, with her economy improving, Russia had a choice: repair infrastructure and society, or rebuild the moribund Russian military. I knew which choice it would make, which was the only one it dared to make: rebuild the military. To do otherwise would have taken a leader of exceptional courage and ability, and Vladimir Putin is neither.
He is, however, a Russian to his core, and he knows his history. Before infrastructure, before society, before anything, a Russian leader is going to try to secure his borders against western aggression. This means that Russia will certainly put pressure on all of its breakaway states, as we are seeing in Georgia now, and are likely to soon see in the Ukraine.
Unfortunately, though, there is another level to Russian realpolitik, as there has ever been. The Czars ruled with iron cruelty, and were supported by a nobility that had emerged out of the robber tribes and groups of the earliest times. (All European nobilities emerged the same way. After the collapse of the Roman empire, the rule of law failed in Europe, with the result that the strongest and most brutal gained power, which is a major reason why post-Roman European history has been characterized by so much violent territorialism.)
This time, the Russian government has no nobility to keep its peasants in check, and to extend control beyond the limits of the law, which has traditionally been regarded as essential to the successful maintenance of power in Russia. Instead, the government has allied itself with criminal elements, in the most fantastic and ominous combination of state power and criminal enterprise that has been seen since the Roman emperors granted their tax collectors the right to beat to death anybody who did not cough up enough wealth.
The result of this combination is inevitable and unstoppable: it is the transformation of Russian state power into a criminal institution, in structure much like the western Roman empire of the late 300s and early 400s. Such enterprises are extraordinarily unfair, dangerous and short-lived. In the case of Rome, the alliance between the emperors and the barbarian chieftans who replaced the tax collectors was short-lived. In 478 AD, the imperial vestments were sent to Constantinople, and the German Chieftain Odoacer replaced the western emperor Romulus Augustulus as King of Italy. Something like this profound a degeneration awaits Russia, in all likelihood.
During the continuing process of decline, Russia is going to become far more dangerous than it ever was before. In the cold war years, it was falsely portrayed in the west as an aggressor, but, as a criminally controlled state, it is likely to become much more like the tribal nations of the later Roman era, with the difference that it will project its power through economic warfare and nuclear terrorism, rather than using the spears and clubs of the past.
South Ossetia, the Georgian province that Russia has, essentially, reconquered, is already a criminal enterprise state. It is also the location of significant Russian nuclear stockpiles, and the smuggling of nuclear materials out of this region and into the Middle East must go through Georgia, either via its ports or overland through Turkey or Armenia, or, conceivably be flown out, although the use of aircraft and airports is obviously highly dangerous when it comes to nuclear smuggling.
In 2003, Georgian border guards, using detection technologies provided by the United States, intercepted 173 grams of highly enriched uranium on the Georgian border with Armenia. Then in 2006, a Russian man was arrested in Georgia for attempting to sell 100 grams of highly enriched uranium – with the promise of 10 pounds more, to a Georgian official who was posing as an Islamic terrorist. Georgian police have also intercepted plutonium, and Georgia is regarded as a hotbed of nuclear smuggling.
The west has worked to build an alliance with Georgia–itself a profoundly corrupt state–in order to inject western nuclear nonproliferation experts and equipment into the region. And, indeed, the 2003 interception of HEU was accomplished through the use of US made detection equipment.
When the Russian army entered Georgia, western nonproliferation specialists left immediately, and what equipment the Russians did not destroy, they took back to Russia, presumably so that it can be analyzed and, in the future, circumvented.
I am still mystified by why Georgia shelled South Ossetia in the first place. Why draw fire from the Russians? The motive remains unclear, unless it has some murky connection to nonproliferation efforts, or was somehow inspired by a foreign power that wishes to force Russia’s hand.
Absent its buffer states, it is clear that Russia aims to protect itself from future western attacks by equipping radical Islam with nuclear weapons, thus forcing the west to turn its attention away from Russia and toward countries like Iran and Syria, and institutions like Hezbollah and other, perhaps unknown, terrorist organizations.
Given the destruction of western nonproliferation efforts in Georgia, and the coming Islamization of Pakistan, which is another subject entirely, it is now inevitable that radical Islam will obtain nuclear weapons.
This has happened, in part, because of poorly conceived and executed American foreign policy, but I think it will be viewed by history as a more organic and inevitable process than we see it now, deeply connected to the decline of western power, and the declining appeal of western material culture around the world.
A footnote: Shortly after I wrote this, Vladimir Putin announced that the U.S. convinced Georgia to attack into South Ossetia in order to help John McCain win the presidency. This motive for Georgia’s mysterious attack is so ridiculous that it might actually be true. If so, and the Republicans are actually willing to sacrifice human lives and cause all that suffering for political gain, it would not seem so good an idea to retain the them in office. But I’m from Missouri on this one, at least at present.
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